In spite of a rising number of violent attacks targeting people from the Northeast, a deeply prejudiced society reinforces divisive lines and gets in the way of justice

Souzeina S Mushtaq Delhi 

In April 2009, a six-year-old girl had gone to the roof of the house to dry clothes. When she did not return, her mother went up to the roof looking for her, but could not find her. Nearly 45 minutes after she went missing, the child’s body was found in a water tank on the roof of another building.

The six-year-old infant, belonging to a Naga family in the Northeast, was raped and murdered and thrown inside a water tank in Mahipalpur. As she was taken out of the mortuary on a stretcher in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), her mother walked alongside, struggling with tears. The girl’s father, a businessman, who had been out of town, had also reached the hospital. Numb, he stood there, with the  wailing mother, as their daughter’s body was put in the van. Once inside, the doors closed, he held what was left of his girl.

Five years after this incident, as justice continued to prove elusive, a 21-year-old northeastern boy was thrashed to death in the capital.

On January 29, Nido Taniam, a student in Jalandhar, had visited the city to meet his friend. As they passed through the crowded streets of Lajpat Nagar, they stopped by a shop to ask for directions. The shopkeeper, looking at Taniam’s streaked hair, teased him and apparently made racist remarks. An altercation ensued in which an infuriated Taniam broke a glass counter in the shop. As the shopkeeper’s henchmen beat up Taniam, the police were called; they took Taniam to the police station and asked him to pay Rs 10,000 to the shopkeeper. He paid Rs 7,000, after which he was dropped back at the shop. His friends allege he was beaten up again.

When he threw up after drinking milk later in the evening, Nido complained of severe chest pain. Next day,  his friend was unable to wake him up in the afternoon. Nido was taken to AIIMS where doctors said he must have died in his sleep.

“When will the Government of India wake up? One should not awaken at the cost of somebody’s life. One life is precious,” says Dr Alana Golmei, an activist and founder member of the Burma Centre in Delhi, who also runs the North East Support Centre and Helpline (NESCH). “Before the post mortem report, they would have said he died of drug overdose. This is not any surprise to us. When Richard Loitam was beaten brutally, they said he died of drug overdose. They come up with these things without any investigation.”

Loitam, 19, a Manipuri student in his second semester at Acharya NRV School of Architecture, Bengaluru was found dead on his hostel bed in April 2012. The post mortem had suggested physical assault. Richard’s family and friends had alleged that he had been beaten to death. A case of murder under Section 174(c) under the CrPc (unnatural death) was registered. But the college authorities had tried to cast him as a drug addict.

Five days before Nido breathed his last, on January 24, local boys harassed two Northeastern girls. They were “beaten…their mobile phones taken…their wallets snatched. Some northeast boys came to help them. They stayed at the police station from 10:30 pm till 6 am just to file an FIR,” says Dr Golmei. 

Facing Alienation and Racism

Northeast India, the eastern most part of the country, is diverse with 272 tribes, and comprises the contiguous Seven Sister States—Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura, and Sikkim. People in the region, which is squeezed between Nepal and Bangladesh, bordering Burma, allege mainland India has never embraced them fully. People migrate to mainland India to get education and jobs as this concentrated belt is mostly  undeveloped.

In his book, A Call to Honour, Jaswant Singh mentions a letter written by Sardar Vallabhai Patel to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on November 7, 1950.

“Let us also consider the political conditions of this potentially troublesome frontier. Our northern and northeastern approaches consist of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal areas in Assam. From the point of view of communication, there are weak spots. Continuous defensive lines do not exist. There is an almost unlimited scope for infiltration. Police protection is limited to a very small number of passes. There, too, our outposts do not seem to be fully manned. The contact of these areas with us is by no means close and intimate. The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices. During the last three years, we have not been able to make any appreciable approaches to the Nagas and other hill tribes in Assam. European missionaries and other visitors had been in touch with them, but their influence was in no way friendly to India or Indians.”

“Alienation has always been there. They have not understood this region and its dynamics. They are not interested in developing the region, and have stereotyped us as full of insurgents. They use this to justify their actions. We are tired of these justifications,” says Dr Golmei.

“Let me give you an example,” she says, “We have many freedom fighters from northeast. Rani Gaidinliu is one of them. We call her Rani Ma. If Rani of Jhansi and Laxmi Bai are known to everybody, why not Rani Gaidinliu? You go to any National Museum, you will not find information on any freedom fighter from the northeast. It is high time India told its own people and those from outside that we are a diverse country, and we have Mongolian races as a part of this country.”

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2014